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Moving Forward on Climate Adaptation in South Africa

To be successful, adaptation efforts must dovetail with human development needs such as poverty reduction and employment.

South Africa’s winter season is turning out to be one of the stormiest and wettest on record. The recent floods in Cape Town were reminiscent of the severe storms that thrashed the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal almost exactly a year ago, resulting in nearly US$500 million in damages. South Africa is Africa’s strongest economy, yet it remains highly vulnerable to extreme climate events---a susceptibility that will likely worsen as the earth warms. This vulnerability is partly due to projected environmental changes, such as increasing severe storm events and decreasing water availability, as well as a lack of social, institutional, and governance capacities for addressing these projected changes.

Barriers to Integrating Adaptation and Development

South Africa is increasingly realizing the importance of pursuing a social development course that helps communities adapt to changes in their environment. This can be called “climate-resilient development.” However, integrating climate concerns with national development priorities can be difficult in practice. In South Africa, climate programs currently do not directly address basic human development needs such as AIDS prevention, employment, health care, and housing. Adaptation planning must address these social issues if it is to be successful; otherwise, adaptation efforts will be sidelined.

Redirecting Adaptation Planning at the National Level

Many working in South Africa’s climate policy arena understand this dilemma and are taking steps to plan for a climate-resilient society. With a dedicated and resourceful core group of researchers and advocates, the country recently developed several climate policies that address development. These include the Long-Term Mitigation Scenarios (South Africa’s roadmap for reducing emissions), the National Sustainable Development Framework, and important climate response strategy documents from both the environment department and the department of science and technology.

In March 2009, the South Africa government officially inaugurated the process for creating a National Climate Change Response Policy (NCCRP). The NCCRP is intended to be the country’s comprehensive adaptation strategy, creating a roadmap for dealing with projected climate change impacts. Although the final policy document is not slated for completion until sometime in 2010, this high-profile endorsement by the national government has increased public understanding of climate change issues and has generated support from all sectors of society.

Local Level Adaptation Planning

Meanwhile, many important actors at other levels of society are building momentum on adaptation. The cities of Cape Town and Durban and the provinces of Western Cape and Limpopo have taken a lead in drafting localized strategies for incorporating adaptation efforts into development. Belynda Petrie, CEO of Oneworld Sustainable Investments in Cape Town, who also helped draft Western Cape’s Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan, believes there is huge potential for integrating adaptation planning and sustainable development, particularly at the municipal and provincial level. Furthermore, Petrie believes that South Africa has incredible research and institutional capacity for synthesizing climate efforts across different sectors.

Perspectives on the South African Experience

The general sentiment among stakeholders involved in climate legislation and adaptation planning in South Africa is positive. South Africa’s newly elected administration, under the leadership of President Jacob Zuma, is on its way to developing a coherent national climate change strategy. However, this effort cannot succeed on the ground without the engagement of a wide diversity of governmental departments, academic institutions, NGOs, and citizens. In the national government and at the “grass tops” of civil society, many of these players understand the need for reconciling adaptation with national development priorities. However, broad public awareness about climate change remains low, and many citizens do not yet see how climate adaptation is relevant to their own social and economic concerns.

Nonetheless, many are concerned that even with South Africa’s relatively advanced industrial base and infrastructure, the majority of its people remain highly susceptible to climate change impacts. Since apartheid ended in 1994, South Africa’s development agenda has focused on reducing poverty and eradicating racial inequality; work that remains far from complete. Even still, South Africa continues to face challenges—such as corruption, limited resources, and lack of local capacity—that prevent it from reaching a level of development that would provide adequate resilience to climate change impacts.

Meanwhile, other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa are beginning to watch South Africa’s progress for ideas and lessons. The South African experience in developing its climate response strategy may have a strong bearing on future prospects for adaptation planning across the rest of the region.

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